No violations at stalls selling live animals for food: SFA

Experts warn of disease risk; SPCA and Acres ask for humane processing practices

Live animals such as bullfrogs (above) and freshwater eels (below) displayed in overcrowded cages and containers last Tuesday at the wet market in the basement of Chinatown Complex. Customers can have the animals slaughtered for their meat at such we
Live animals such as bullfrogs (above) and freshwater eels displayed in overcrowded cages and containers last Tuesday at the wet market in the basement of Chinatown Complex. Customers can have the animals slaughtered for their meat at such wet-market stalls.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Live animals such as bullfrogs (above) and freshwater eels (below) displayed in overcrowded cages and containers last Tuesday at the wet market in the basement of Chinatown Complex. Customers can have the animals slaughtered for their meat at such we
Live animals such as bullfrogs and freshwater eels (above) displayed in overcrowded cages and containers last Tuesday at the wet market in the basement of Chinatown Complex. Customers can have the animals slaughtered for their meat at such wet-market stalls.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

It is not the usual wet market that you will find in the basement of Chinatown Complex in Smith Street.

It is a place where customers can buy live animals such as softshell turtles, bullfrogs and freshwater eels, have them slaughtered and take them home to cook.

In recent weeks, such wet markets have come under global scrutiny, owing to the suspected links between the current Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 166,000 lives worldwide and a live-seafood market in Wuhan where live and dead creatures such as bats, civets and snakes are sold as food.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said last week that the slaughter of live turtles, frogs and eels at markets and food stalls is allowed as long as the vendors comply with the requirements under the Environmental Public Health Act, which covers food safety and hygiene. This includes ensuring stall cleanliness and proper storage of food, it said.

The agency added that action will be taken in the case of violations, and that it has not detected any infringements in its regular inspections so far.

Scientists have found that the Sars-CoV-2 virus which causes the Covid-19 disease in humans is closely related genetically to coronaviruses isolated from bat populations. They say it is likely that the transmission of the virus to humans occurred via an intermediate animal host - which has yet to be identified.

Dr Richard Thomas, a spokesman for the wildlife trade-monitoring network Traffic, told ST that while the origin of the Sars-CoV-2 virus is unclear, there is widespread speculation about a connection to the trade in wild animals.

In February, China announced that it would immediately ban the trade and consumption of wild animals nationwide to battle the outbreak - a decision that followed an initial suspension imposed in January.

Earlier this month, about 200 conservation groups from around the world also called on the World Health Organisation to implement a blanket ban on live-wildlife markets worldwide, citing the markets' "proven threats to human health" as a reason.

Said Dr Thomas: "The critical thing to bear in mind is that the disease risk comes from the keeping of animals in cramped conditions in close proximity to people - the conditions under which viruses are enabled to cross the species barrier and infect people."

CRAMPED CONDITIONS RAISE DISEASE RISK

The critical thing to bear in mind is that the disease risk comes from the keeping of animals in cramped conditions in close proximity to people - the conditions under which viruses are enabled to cross the species barrier and infect people.

DR RICHARD THOMAS, a spokesman for the wildlife trade-monitoring network Traffic.

Professor Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, said that there is always a risk of infections from animals when hygiene standards are not high. He added that the risk is reduced in Singapore, where the standards are "generally high".

"However, where there are lapses, our weather makes it easy for food-borne illnesses to thrive and spread," said Prof Tambyah.

When ST visited the wet market at Chinatown Complex last Tuesday, dozens of American bullfrogs were seen packed in overcrowded cages at one stall. The cages appeared to be lined with animal waste. At least 20 freshwater eels were held inside a plastic box filled with water at the same stall, with barely any space for the creatures to move.

In an earlier trip to the market last month, ST also saw Asiatic softshell turtles - reportedly caught in the wild - being sold at the stalls, and were held in display tanks.

Wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) said that based on investigations it carried out last month, the slaughter of live animals at the wet-market stalls took place in close proximity to where the meat sold to the public was placed, and that this poses a serious risk of disease transmission.

Acres noted that the softshell turtles displayed were found with rostral abrasions - which resulted from the creatures rubbing their noses against the nets they were kept in.

Open wounds such as these can easily develop into infections, said the organisation.

It added that the live animals in its investigations were found to have been starved from the time they were taken to the stall to the point of slaughter. This was reportedly to prevent "bad odours" during the slaughtering process, according to the stallholders.

Said a spokesman for Acres: "In addition to welfare concerns, physiological stress arising from hunger and overcrowded conditions often suppresses the animals' immune system, increasing the potential for disease outbreaks and spillovers."

Acres said that together with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Singapore, it is appealing to the National Parks Board and SFA to restrict all slaughter to premises regulated by the agencies, and end the selling of live animals at public wet markets and food stalls.

Dr Jaipal Singh Gill, executive director of SPCA, said: "Just as it was done for poultry, we are asking for aquatic animals to be humanely and hygienically processed for food in well-regulated premises, and for an end to the display and sale of live animals in food establishments."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2020, with the headline 'No violations at stalls selling live animals for food: SFA'. Subscribe